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It Was Insane to Restart Sports in America

The Miami Marlins are dealing with a Covid-19 outbreak, and the NBA is flirting with disaster in its “bubble.” What did team owners think would happen?

Hunter Martin/Getty Images

For the sports-deprived American discontent with watching Premier League games, last week was something of a reprieve: The National Basketball Association, ensconced in its Orlando bubble, began running scrimmages between 22 invited teams. The National Women’s Soccer League crowned a champion. And Major League Baseball kicked off its 60-game sprint of a regular season. Sports were back! 

Then, on Sunday, as the Miami Marlins wrapped a three-game series with the Philadelphia Phillies, news broke that at least four players had tested positive for Covid-19 prior to the game, including the afternoon’s starting pitcher. Despite this, and a report that one player had tested positive as early as Friday, Miami manager Don Mattingly said the team “never really considered not playing” Sunday’s game—a decision they reportedly reached via group text message. By Monday morning, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that two coaches and 11 Marlins players—a full third of the team—tested positive. As a result of the outbreak, Miami’s home-opener against the Baltimore Orioles was canceled, as was the Phillies’ upcoming series against the New York Yankees.

This was inevitable. It didn’t have to play out at this level of stupidity and danger, but spreading the virus was built in from the start. There is just no way to safely facilitate the amount of travel that a 30-team league like the MLB requires. Mindlessly listening to the familiar noises of an afternoon game might be a nice relief from the past few months of silence—even being able to watch shitty YouTube highlights of half-hearted NBA scrimmages has been amazing, honestly—but that in no way justifies the risk. 

The MLB’s abridged regular season and the Marlins’ outbreak were both preceded by months of hostile negotiations between team owners and the MLB Players Association. During the negotiations—which chiefly concerned how much players’ salaries would be reduced and how long the season would be—team owners and commissioner Rob Manfred tried to publicly cast the union as the enemy of the people—the force standing in the way of bringing “baseball back to our fans.” After that routine flopped, the owners finally conceded in late June to the terms that they had initially agreed to in March: They would be able to set the length of the season, provided the players were compensated with full prorated versions of their original contracts. The 2020 MLB season was finally back on, only to slowly collapse a month later.

In response to the Marlins fallout, some sportswriters pointed to the NBA and its Florida bubble as the sensible, ideal alternative: Rather than resume the season with the logistical nightmare of everyday travel, the association opted to bring a limited number of teams to Orlando, where they plan to play in a series of scrimmages and a brief number of regular season games before proceeding with a full-scale version of the playoffs. Staff and team members, and a handful of reporters, are locked down in Orlando, at the Disney-owned compound, not allowed to leave save for family emergencies.  

Beyond the creepiness of the bubble concept, the NBA experiment is also taking place in Florida, a national and global hot spot for the virus. And while players are not supposed to leave the bubble, essential workers are walking to its borders every day as players look for delivery options outside of room service. Adding to this disruption of the so-called bubble is the fact that of the few emergency departures that have already taken place—league star and New Orleans Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson, for instance, had to leave the bubble for an undisclosed family matter—at least one seems to have included a pitstop. Los Angeles Clippers guard Lou Williams recently left the bubble to attend the funeral of a close family friend. During that same trip, a picture of Williams wearing a face mask at an Atlanta nightclub was posted on Instagram by rapper Jack Harlow. (Harlow, who was also wearing a mask, quickly deleted the picture and then hilariously lied about his slip-up in another since-deleted post, explaining, “That was an old pic of me and Lou. I was just reminiscing cuz I miss him.”)

There is, in other words, no good way to restart professional sports in a pandemic. Trying to do it anyway is stupid, selfish, and dangerous. Travel heightens the risk for all involved, and there is no bubble airtight enough. Both versions are ultimately in the pursuit of the same thing—large sums of precious television ad dollars—and the owners behind both leagues are willing to do whatever it takes to get those ad dollars into their pockets. 

These owners are the same people whose wealth is dependent on a healthy stock market, workers be damned. So it should not register as a shock that, despite all available evidence that now is decidedly not a good moment for large groups of players to share a locker room or a hotel or an airplane or a bubble community, the people in charge wanted to do it anyway.

This didn’t have to be the case, but it’s where we are now. The United States could have responded swiftly to the virus and saved countless lives. Then the sports watchers among us could have happily returned to getting mad about trash-can cheating scandals and physics-defying buzzer beaters and Holy shit, I miss sports! But we didn’t do that. The virus festered as the nation’s leaders twiddled their collective thumbs, and now this warped, disfigured version of professional sports is all that’s left. You can try to defend it as much as you want, but the MLB restart—and any forthcoming decisions to play from college football or the NFL, or any sports that requires dozens of players and even more staffers to operate, and maybe even the NBA bubble—feels like an unnecessarily risky play and a product of the failed pandemic response that will ultimately put entire communities, not just the pro athletes, at risk. There’s no number of afternoons spent getting lightly toasted while a National League East back-to-back lulls you to sleep that is worth that. It’s not even close.